When You Dance With the Devil

© by J. 'Harley' Elmore, 2003 - 2004

See disclaimers in Chapter One

Chapter Twenty, Part 1

The time to depart had finally arrived, and Deven felt caught between her eagerness to leave and the awkwardness of saying something to the woman who had been far more than just a caregiver. Sitting at the kitchen table, she absently traced the wood grain with her finger. "I, um," she started but then stopped when her mind failed to frame her thoughts.

Kate waited but when nothing more was forthcoming, she stepped closer. "Yes?"

"I don't know what to say," Deven mumbled without looking up.

"About what, honey?"

Taking a deep breath, the martial artist released it in a rush. "I guess I want to say thank you."

"You guess?" the older woman asked.

"Yeah. I mean. No!" Deven sat back in exasperation and looking up into Kate's eyes, perceived the mischievous glint. "You are not nice."

Kate laughed easily and sat down in the chair next to the younger woman. "Sure I am. I just don't give you your way too often."

"No you don't," Deven admitted with a brief smile before becoming somber again. Okay, Rhian is going to be back any second so if you're going to say something, you better get on with it. This is hard enough without embarrassing yourself in front of Rhian, too. Clearing her throat, she tried once more to initiate a dialogue. "You didn't have to take me in. You didn't have to do anything for me, and I know that I was a real pain the whole time."

"Well, not the whole time. You did sleep occasionally," Kate teased.

Failing to see any humor in the remark, the martial artist shook her head sadly. "I know."

Kate covered Deven's hand with her own. "I hope that you find peace. I hope that you'll find a way to exorcise the past and truly embrace the present. You're incredibly strong and there's such depth to you that you refuse to set free." With her other hand, Kate tenderly brushed a strand of hair back behind Deven's ear. "I wish that things had been different for you. Just know that you and Tiernan have a home here. Okay?"

"Thank you," Deven answered in a strained whisper.

"I'm counting on you. I'm counting on you to take care of yourself and continue to let your body heal. And I'm counting on you to work with Rhian to heal this relationship. She loves you and I know you love her. Stop fighting it so hard and just let it be."

"It's not that simple."

"I know that, problem child. Do you think I was born yesterday? I've been in a marriage longer than you've been alive. I'm telling you though that you can make it seem that simple. Put your love for your family before everything else, especially your pride, and the rest will fall into place. With a little prodding here and there. Honestly, Deven, sometimes you're like a bull in the china shop of love, tripping all over yourself trying not to break anything. Stop, relax, and you'll be just fine."

Standing up, Kate leaned forward and kissed the martial artist on the forehead. "If you need me for any reason or if you just want to talk, don't be afraid to call. And behave yourself. I'm headed out to build up my wooden spoon collection. I owe you big time as it is."

"Yes, ma'am," Deven replied and wiped her eyes.

"Ready, champ?" Rhian asked from the doorway.

"I think so. Do we have everything?"

"Everything's in the truck. Oh, by the way, I want to get rid of that thing."

"What?" Deven asked as she stood.

"The truck."

"My truck? Why?"

"Bad memories."

"But I like my truck. Besides, we made some good memories in there, too."

Rhian's face turned pink at some of the more risqué reminiscences. "I used to like it, and I'll always cherish those moments," she said and wrapped an arm around Deven's waist. "Hey, I know. We can get a minivan."

"I am not, under any circumstances, getting a mommy wagon!"

"But you are a mommy," the landscaper answered matter-of-factly.

Deven's mouth opened and then snapped shut.

"She got you there, Deven," Kate added with a chuckle.

"Hey, no aiding and abetting from the peanut gallery," the martial artist called out over her shoulder.

"Don't even go there, problem child. You're still high up on my list after that stunt yesterday."

"Yeah∑yeah," Deven scoffed at the threat. But just in case, she made sure to keep an eye on the woman until she was completely out of the room.


Deven walked into the house feeling unquestionably liberated. After Rhian and Seana went upstairs to unpack, she leisurely reacquainted herself with the space, her space. Strolling from room to room on the ground floor, she took pleasure in the satisfaction of being home and free again. Free? Are you really, Masterson?

Standing in the middle of the sunroom, she scanned the woods. What are you after, Manny? When she'd first been told what had happened, she hadn't even suspected that Manny had been behind it. Not after all this time. Even when the dreams about Tito had begun, she didn't make the connection.

But now that her memory was returning, knowing that the man was back in her life was deeply disturbing. He'd let her live, and she wasn't comfortable with the possible implications. Had her debt been paid or was she to be dragged back into that life? Would he feel she owed him because he spared her life? I don't owe you shit!

Turning away from the windows, she resumed her aimless wandering around the house until she got to Tiernan's bedroom. Leaning against the doorframe, she looked at the tidy space that was typical of her son. Deven didn't know if this characteristic to maintain order was ingrained or something that had been thrust upon him by the circumstances of his young life. Nor did she know if it was necessarily a negative behavior.

Seana was anything but neat. She was a lively little girl who played, cried, laughed, and loved with the simple abandon of an innocent. While Tiernan had moments in which he approached the world with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, he was more often diffident and reflective. Though in the months prior to this latest nightmare, Deven had noticed he'd been more animated and she supposed the main reason for that had been that she herself had been more relaxed and playful. Water under the bridge, Masterson.

All attempts to talk to her son were being effectively thwarted by Patricia. There were times when it was difficult to not just go storming over there. To what, Masterson? What are you going to do? Beat the old lady up? I sure as hell would love to punch that bitch right in the face. Well sure you would. But why? For Tiernan or for yourself?

Deep down inside there had always been a childlike aspect that had sometimes wondered if there would ever come a time in her life when her mother would put aside the animosity and they could somehow find a middle ground. But Deven understood now that it was impossible and always had been.

Kate had shown her something that no one else had ever been able to; that the problem wasn't solely hers. A good portion of it certainly was, but that this stranger could reach out and care for her, even after learning of the truth, drove home the fact that Patricia just despised her. And Deven didn't believe that she'd ever know the reason why. But even after accepting that truth, the conflict continued.

Earlier that morning, Patricia had adamantly refused to put Tiernan on the phone and had stopped just short of saying that she'd go to court to keep Deven away. Spoken or not, the implication was clearly there, and the martial artist was having a difficult time coming up with a valid reason why Tiernan wasn't better off overall where he was.

He grew up in that house with those people as his family. And Patricia is a wacko, but she isn't the only adult. There's Laura and Roger. Roger can be a father to him. Certainly he's better off in a stable home, despite the bitch, than being made to pay for what I was. Am? And besides, until I know what Manny's expectations are, Tiernan's safer where he is. I do not want him brought into that world even if it's remotely through me. And if that means he never steps foot in this house again, so be it.

"How does it feel?" Rhian asked.

Deven started slightly at the voice. "What?"

"Being home," the landscaper answered cautiously.

"It feels good. I feel like I've been away for years," Deven replied and closed the door to her son's room. "Where's Seana?"

"She ran next door to see Star. Can I get you anything?"

"No thanks. I'm good."

In the entire time they'd known each other, neither woman had ever felt the need to fill the moments of silence. They'd always found that the pleasure of each other's company didn't require conversation, but now it was anything but comfortable and seemed downright insurmountable.

"Do you want to talk about it? Tiernan, I mean."

"I don't think so. There's nothing to really talk about. He's okay where he is."

"Deven, I."

The martial artist held up a hand. "Rhian, it's okay. Maybe when things get back to normal, I can get visitation rights or something."

"What?" the landscaper responded incredulously. "You can't be serious. You're just giving him up?"

"It is what it is," Deven answered with a shrug. "I'm going downstairs and see if Jay and Nicole left us any food. I figure a trip to the store is going to be a necessity."

Confused by Deven's decision and disappointed by the abrupt end to the discussion, Rhian took time to ensure her composure was firmly in place. "I'll go and you can just relax. Should I take Seana with me?"

"No. Leave her."

"Anything in particular you want me to get?" Rhian asked.

"I'll see what's in the house and put a list together. I can go with you if you want."

"That's up to you, Deven."

Their eyes locked. Words were being exchanged, but they weren't really saying anything. And they both knew it.

"I'll stay here with Seana," Deven said into the silence.

"All right," Rhian responded with forced cheerfulness. "I'll go start the list." As she moved away, Deven reached and took her hand.

"Why don't we go make the list together? That way we can be sure we both get what we want," the martial artist suggested.



"I'd like that," the landscaper agreed.

"Okay," Deven said and leaned forward, lightly pressing her lips against her companion's cheek. "Come on. I hear mocha chocolate cup ice cream calling my name."

"Oh, you are on," Rhian replied with a smile.

Part 2

"Where's Deven?" Nicole asked as she sat down next to her friend at the breakfast bar.

"Outside somewhere. She took the kids for a walk in the woods," Rhian answered.

"Has she said anything else about Tiernan?"


"Rhian, maybe you should."

"If you're going to suggest that I approach the subject, save your breath. I've tried, Nic. If Deven doesn't want to talk about something, I can't make her. I've tried to just discuss things civilly. I've gotten angry. I've given her the silent treatment. I've practically begged. None of it works, and quite frankly, it just makes me unhappy."

"Okay," Nicole replied carefully. "So how are things? Really."

"They're all right. We don't fight. We just sort of hang out I guess is the best way to explain it. We don't talk about what happened, and I don't ask anymore. If she wants me to know, she'll tell me. And we don't discuss Tiernan, but between you and me, I'm still trying to reach him. I guess you could say we share space and we share Seana. But we aren't sharing very much of ourselves with each other."

Nicole took a sip of her coffee, and then asked, "She hasn't gone near the schools has she? Jay says she isn't paying much attention to the business."

"She doesn't seem really interested in anything. Not like she used to be. From what I understand, she's taken over the books but other than that, she just isn't involved. And she trusts Jay," Rhian said as she tried unsuccessfully to dispel the sadness from her voice. "We've been home a week now and we've got a pretty decent routine going. I go to work and she takes care of Seana. We eat dinner together and take turns getting Seana ready for bed. We tuck her in together. Sometimes we watch movies or just television. Or she does whatever in the office, and I work on my designs upstairs. It isn't uncomfortable so much as unfulfilling."

"Are you, you know?" Nicole asked, her voice trailing off at the end.

"Am I what?"

"Not you. You and Deven. Are you two, you know?"


Nicole rolled her eyes. "Sex, Rhian. Are you having sex?"

The landscaper turned her eyes to the window. "No," she said softly. "We barely touch. I mean, you know me, I'm a touchy kind of person, but I've gotten kind of self-conscious about it. Sometimes she'll hug me or hold my hand. Sometimes she'll kiss me, but it's not like it was. It's like we don't have any intimacy either physically or verbally. There just isn't any passion in her anymore."

She shook her head slightly. "It's hard to explain. It's like the emotions are gone but I know they're not. I think it's more like emotionally she's gone so deep inside herself that she appears apathetic at times. She doesn't get mad. She doesn't cry. She doesn't really laugh though she is smiling more often."

"She was always so intense about everything," Nicole replied reflectively. "I think that was one thing that put me off about her."

"I know. But it was one of the things I've always loved about her. Her passionate spirit. Now it's as if that part of her is dead. Nothing I do makes any difference, and the only time she still releases anything is in her sleep. She's still having nightmares but she absolutely refuses to talk about them."

Reaching out, Nicole covered Rhian's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "How are you holding up?"

Rhian took a deep breath. "I won't lie. I miss it. I miss her. It hurts, but it could be worse. Still, I won't cry in front of her anymore. Whenever she's around I strive to maintain my own emotional equilibrium. Otherwise, I wait until I'm alone."

"Have you tried to initiate something?" Nicole asked.

"You mean have I tried to seduce her?"

"Well, something like that. You know her better than anyone else, and Deven has always been a physical kind of person. Maybe she'd do better if the two of you got intimate instead of trying to talk about things right now. Maybe that would open her up."

"I thought I knew her," Rhian replied as she rubbed her damp eyes. "And no, I'm waiting for her to give me some indication that she wants more. Right now, she doesn't want intimacy. Whenever things between us appear like they might become more intense or move in that direction, she pulls away."

Both women turned towards the back door as Deven stepped into the room. "Hi, Nicole. How're you doing?"

"Fine, stretch. How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good," the martial artist replied as she walked over to the sink and began washing her hands.

"Where's Seana?" Rhian asked.

"She's next door. I guess Freddie got a new video game or something so they're all over there," Deven answered while drying her hands.

They fell silent and Nicole swore she could actually feel the gulf between the women. "Well, I need to get going."

"You guys are still planning on spending Thanksgiving here, right?" Deven asked.

"Yes. Which reminds me," she said as she looked back at her friend. "What do you want me to bring?"

"Actually, I forgot to buy rolls yesterday. I was going to ask Mom to bring them, but if you don't mind picking them up, I'd appreciate it."

"No problem. Anything else?"

Rhian mentally went through the menu in her head. "No. I went shopping yesterday and picked up everything that Mom isn't bringing. So I think we're set."

Standing up, Nicole gave her friend a reassuring smile. "Well, if you think of anything, let me know."

"Thanks," Rhian replied and stood up to walk her friend out. Opening the front door, the landscaper was surprised to find Alex standing on the front stoop with another man.

"I was just about to knock," he told her with a smile.

"Hi, Alex. What's up?"

"Is Deven here?"

"She's in the kitchen."

"I was wondering if we could talk to her for a few minutes."

"I'm sure that would be all right. Come on in," she replied while opening the door wider to allow Alex and the other man to enter after Nicole stepped out.

"Talk to you later," Nicole called out as she walked towards her car.

Rhian waved one last time before closing the door. "Let's go find Deven," she said and then led the way to the kitchen.

The martial artist was sitting at the breakfast bar sipping coffee when they entered the room. "Hey, Alex."

"Deven. This is my new partner, Detective Pellam. Rick this is Deven Masterson and her partner Rhian."

She gave the newcomer a slight nod in acknowledgement while sizing him up. He was younger than Alex, clean cut, and almost painfully fastidious in his dress. Rookie. Dismissing him, she looked directly at her neighbor. "What's up?"

"Would you like some coffee or something?" Rhian offered.

"No thanks," Alex replied for both detectives. "I thought you were going to contact us when you got home, Deven."

"I was going to contact you if I had something to tell you and I don't."

Alex took a step closer and leaned casually against the breakfast bar. "Look, Deven, we have a job to do, okay? Don't make this any harder, will you?"

"What do you want me to say, Alex?"

"How about the truth?" Pellam interjected.

"Are you calling me a liar, Officer?"

"Detective," he corrected. "Are you? A liar that is."

"Not if I don't have reason to be," Deven answered with a chuckle. "Look, Alex, I don't know who the people were."

"People?" Rick jumped in and took a step closer.

Cocking her head, the woman stared at the young detective. His eagerness to butt in was getting on her nerves and she decided to play with him a little "Well, yeah. They weren't dogs or cats or monkeys. I'm pretty sure they were people. Or at least they resembled members of the human race."

"Funny, Deven," Alex said.

"Hey, he asked."

Rick seemed undisturbed by her attitude, as if he didn't realize he was being toyed with. "I just think it interesting that you use the term people instead of being more gender specific."

"Ah, it's always about sex, isn't it?" she asked seductively causing a slight blush to darken his cheeks. "Well, since I couldn't actually see all of them, it would be rather sexist of me to assume they were all men. Don't you think? I mean this is, after all, an age of enlightenment and equality. Or so I've heard. Didn't you get that memo, officer?"

Rhian exhaled in exasperation but refused to meet Deven's inquisitive gaze. "I didn't know any of them," the martial artist answered absently, her attention on the landscaper's slumped shoulders.

"But you knew Mace Collier," Alex said.

"Unfortunately, that's true. Our paths crossed occasionally over the years." She paused for several seconds for effect. "Maybe he was behind it. I mean he orchestrated the whole thing by getting us all out into that field."

"And he ends up dead," the younger man responded sarcastically.

"Yeah, well, he must have pissed someone off. Perhaps he didn't pay his hired help like he promised. He always had a way of shooting off his big mouth whether or not he could back it up."

"You don't seem too upset that he's gone," the detective continued.

"Why should I be?" she replied. Why in the hell is Alex letting this pup take the lead? "He assaulted Rhian once before. He forces her into that field by threatening Seana. He attacked me in front of the kids. You tell me why I should be upset that he isn't around anymore?"

"It isn't as if he just moved out of town, Ms. Masterson. Someone killed him and from what the coroner says, it wasn't a pleasant way to die. It seems to me, especially based on everything you've just said, that you had plenty of reason to want to him dead."

"I suppose I did. Are you inferring that I killed him and then I beat myself up? Or do you mean that I managed somehow to kill him after I was assaulted? Is it just me or does anyone else see the flaws in that inane theory?"

"I'm sure we can rule that out," Alex said to his partner. "I was there when they found her. There is no way she could have hurt anyone."

Pellam appeared flustered as that line of questioning came to an abrupt dead end, and he quickly took a small notebook from his jacket. "The man who grabbed Ms. McKenna and then fired the gun, called you by name."

Propping her elbow on the counter top, Deven rested her chin on her palm and smiled at the man's discomfort. "So did Mace. There are a lot of people in this world who know my name. I've spent most of my life in public, performing and competing. Just pick up a martial arts magazine and you'll find my name in there somewhere. Wouldn't you expect that if I were the intended target, they'd know my name? Deven is a lot easier to say than what's her name."

The man was losing some of his confidence, and the martial artist took delight in knowing she was the cause. Freaken little boy.

"You were taken by car to the warehouse where you were later found. During that entire drive, didn't you look at anyone else in the car?"

Here was the first direct question that required she either blatantly lie or be vague in order to answer it. "It was dark."

"Come on," Rick said in frustration. "Do you actually want us to believe that you didn't at any time between the carnival and the warehouse get a look at anyone else in the car? According to Ms. McKenna, the guy with the gun got into the back with you. And Mace got into a different car that followed along behind you. That doesn't make sense, Masterson. Especially if you want us to buy your theory that Collier was behind this."

Deven had grown weary of the tedious questioning and was starting to get irritated. "I had a lot on my mind. My hand was broken and handcuffed behind my back. Officer Pellam, have you ever had your hand broken by a crowbar?" She didn't wait for an answer. "It hurts like a bitch. But what hurt more was that I had just said goodbye to my family. As for Mace? That guy was dumb as a rock, and he probably knew that if he got into that car with me, I'd kick his sorry ass!"

"Easy, Deven," Alex said.

"Don't placate me, Alex! You're standing there while this Ken doll cop is interrogating me. I didn't fucking kill anyone. All I'm guilty of was trying to protect Rhian and the kids. If that's a crime, arrest me. Otherwise take your wet behind the ears sidekick and get the fuck out of my house!" She reached up unconsciously and rubbed her temples.

Recognizing the gesture, Rhian quickly retrieved the bottle of painkillers and placed two of the small pills in front of Deven along with a glass of water.

"Thanks," the marital artist muttered and swallowed the pills without protest. "Now, thanks to you both, I have another fucking headache. So if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go lie down."

Neither detective moved, until Alex said, "I'll meet you outside."

"Fine by me. This is a waste of time," Pellam responded angrily.

"Hey, junior," Deven said and then smiled insidiously at the young man. "When you get out of training pants, I'll teach you how to really interrogate someone."

"Bitch!" Pellam snapped and took a step towards the martial artist.

Placing himself directly in his partner's path, Alex stopped the confrontation. "Go wait outside," he ordered.

Embarrassed at having lost his temper, Pellam turned abruptly and stormed out of the house.

Alex waited until the front door closed before speaking again. "Why do I get the feeling that you're holding something back? "

"I don't know, Alex. Where do you get off bringing that little nothing in here and having him interrogate me?"

"I thought it would be good practice for him to question you. He isn't a bad guy and he's got good instincts. He's just new to being a detective."

Deven grunted. "Look, I don't remember all the details. There are still blanks in my memory. It isn't as if I can sit down and remember every moment from beginning to end."

"I just want to get these people, Deven."

"And I appreciate that."

"The best I can come up with based on what little you and Rhian have provided is that this might have been a hate crime. We know you had a history with Mace. And we know that he did hate you. But that seems pretty lame."

Deven regarded him thoughtfully. "I don't know. I think it's an interesting theory."

"These are interesting times," he answered with a shrug. "Wouldn't you say?"

"Anything is possible, I suppose."

Rhian shook her head and walked out of the room.

Alex watched her go and then looked at Deven. "If you should remember something, call me."

"I will, but I wouldn't hold your breath."

"I figured," he replied.

Deven followed him to the door and closed it softly after he left. The house was quiet. Walking up the stairs she paused at the top, listening for the other woman. It didn't take long to pick up the muffled sobs. Following the sound, she moved towards the children's rooms and stopped outside of Tiernan's closed bedroom door. Placing her palm against the wood surface, she absorbed the anguish being released on the other side. "I'm sorry, Rhian, but this is how it has to be," she whispered before turning away.

Part 3

Leaning a hip against the counter, the landscaper contemplated the enormous turkey. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving and this year's holiday held a certain bitter sweetness to it. Rhian was thankful that Deven was alive and that they were together, but she was also somewhat melancholy over the distance that remained between them.

Rhian didn't doubt that they still loved each other nor did she doubt that they had the potential to get past everything given time and a shared purpose to do so. Her reservations centered on her inability to reach that part of her friend that still needed to heal and Deven's reticence to allow her back in.

Lifting her gaze to the window, she shifted her thoughts away from the glumness to ponder the previous night instead. They'd gone to bed as they had each night with Deven on her side of the bed and Rhian on hers. As she felt herself begin to drift towards slumber, Rhian had rolled over onto her side away from the martial artist. But before sleep could claim her, she'd felt her companion move and familiar warmth settled around her as Deven spooned against her back and wrapped an arm around her waist. At first she'd held her breath, and when her brain had finally accepted that this was real, she'd relaxed in the embrace and drifted off to sleep. Not certain what if meant, if anything, she chose to just cherish the memory.

Most mornings, Rhian would wake up thinking that today would be the day that she'd find that weak spot in Deven's armor. That she'd figure out how to get past the defenses to actually reach the woman she loved. And each night she'd go to bed knowing that she'd failed that day but somehow finding the resolve to face it all again in the morning.

"All right, Tom. Too soon to stuff you, so I reckon you get a reprieve until tomorrow morning. Do you have a problem with that? I didn't think so," she said and put the turkey back into the refrigerator.

Delectable aromas were drifting into the office, and Deven found herself drawn to the kitchen. "Hey," she said as she walked into the room. "What's cooking?"

"Pumpkin pie."


"Deven, there are going to be quite a few people here. There's a lot to do and the more I get done this afternoon, the less I'll have to do tomorrow."

"Well, there must be something I can do to help."

"I'd appreciate that," Rhian replied while spooning mashed yams into a casserole dish. "You could start by setting the table. I've already put everything out."

"Okay," Deven said and walked into the dining room. But instead of moving to the table, she crossed to the large window and stared out at the autumnal landscape; the bleakness of the scenery reflective of how she felt inside.

Ever since the conversation with Alex, Deven had been thinking a lot about the current situation, and the one thing that came back to her repeatedly was how much she missed the closeness that she'd shared with Rhian. Given that they'd only been living together for two months prior to the abduction, it was rather startling how much she missed it. But in that short span of time her life had changed.

Rhian had brought an incredible depth of caring to the martial artist's life and Deven had ultimately allowed herself to be open to it. She'd learned a new level of openness that required a certain degree of vulnerability, neither of which had been easy but had eventually been more rewarding than she'd thought possible.

And that was one of the things that concerned her now, because while she remembered most of what had happened, she still held onto those memories and the emotions associated with them. She couldn't quite figure out the balance between being intimate with Rhian again while holding in everything about that night.

Nothing between them had ever been shallow or inconsequential. The pain of the beating, both physically and emotionally, was still too real and too raw, and when coupled with not knowing what lie ahead, she was nearly desperate to keep everything bottled up. Until that time arrived when she believed herself ready to face it all, she kept the wedge firmly in place between them, knowing full well that it only perpetuated the suffering in silence for them both.

I've got to find an answer. One way or the other because I can't do this much longer. It hurts too much. Focusing on the table, she methodically went about setting each place. "You know, I've never used this table before. In fact, I've never really spent any time in this room. Never had a reason to before," Deven called out as she finished the task.

Rhian stopped as she listened to her companion, and the sadness blindsided her. Stop it! She tried to shake it off, but the emotion rapidly became overwhelming, filling her eyes with tears. Placing her palms on the counter, her shoulders began to shake with silent sobs.

Strolling back into the kitchen, Deven watched as her own struggle resurfaced. This time instead of debating the issue, she gave into the need and crossing the room, she pulled Rhian into an embrace. She didn't speak a word because there was nothing she could think to say, and so she just held on for them both, unaware that the small act had shifted her own resolve ever so slightly.

The tears eventually slowed and Rhian stepped back. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Please don't say that," Deven said before dipping her head and kissing the landscaper softly. Pulling back slightly, she looked at the woman's tear streaked face and then hugged her fiercely for several seconds before easing her grasp.

"Sometimes," Rhian whispered against the martial artist's shoulder, "I don't know what to think. I don't know what to say or what to do."

"Either do I," Deven answered. "But you have to know that I love you."

Afraid that she might start to cry again if she tried to respond, Rhian merely nodded and detected the slight stiffening in Deven's body indicating that the retreat had begun. Biting her lower lip to stay any more tears, Rhian stepped back and gently patted the woman's side. "I, um, need some fresh air. I think I'll take a walk."

"Do you want me to go with you?"

The landscaper smiled sadly. "No thanks. I won't be long."

"Rhian? I'm sorry. I just," Deven stopped abruptly as the words continued to eluded her.

"Me, too," she replied. "I'll be back in a bit." Not expecting a response, Rhian walked out of the house into the crisp fall air.


Deep in thought, Rhian was oblivious to most of what was going on around her, including the car that was following at a discreet distance. If she had noticed, she wouldn't have walked all the way to the end of their street and then unsuspectingly placed herself right in the sedan's path. But having reached the far cul de sac, she casually turned back towards home only to find her way blocked. Before she could react, the back door of the vehicle opened and an older man stepped out.

"Hello, Ms. McKenna," he said.

The deep resonating voice ran right through her and panic threatened to take over. Rhian fought its immobilizing effect by evaluating her current options, and she was forced to concede that there weren't many. She was aware that at least two other people had exited the car. The one just behind her she assumed was the driver, and she knew that there was at least one other individual standing on the opposite side of the car. Even if she screamed for help, they could force her in the vehicle and be out of the neighborhood before anyone had an opportunity to respond. Worse, they could simply just shoot her where she stood and drive away. Well, that would be preferable to what they did to Deven.

Observing the emotions move across her expressive face, Manny questioned yet again his sanity at becoming personally involved in the situation.

"What do you want?" she demanded, her fear turning to anger over the current situation and for what this man had done to her companion.

"I only wish to inquire about Deven," he said calmly. "How is she?"

"Who in the hell are you?"

"My name doesn't matter."

It was definitely the same voice. It had haunted her every single day and often in her dreams at night. "It does to me, you son of a bitch! You tried to kill her and now you have the gall to show up here and ask how she is?"

"Ms. McKenna."

"No!" she shouted at him.

Manny was rather surprised by her backbone because he'd just assumed that since she was with Deven she wouldn't have much grit. "Believe it or not, I'm concerned about her well being."

"What? You expect me to think you care? If you care so damn much, why did you do it to her in the first place? I should call the police."

She moved to walk past him but he reached out and gripped her upper arm. "Would you have rather she'd been tortured, possibly raped and then killed?"

"Of course not!" she replied while struggling to pull free of his grasp.

"Well that at the very least, Ms. McKenna, would have been her fate had I not done what I did." He released her and then gave her a few seconds to absorb what he was saying. "Someone wanted her hurt. Actually, they wanted her tortured and then killed."


"Not me or I would have insured she died," Manny answered wryly.

Dropping her gaze to the ground, she mulled over his words. That he could have killed Deven was obvious, but for whatever reason, he'd left her alive. Barely, Rhian. True but alive nonetheless. "Well if you weren't behind it then who was? And why?" she asked in a desperate tone.

"I'm not certain yet, but I'm going to find out who it was. As for why? I won't know until I locate the person."

"This doesn't make sense." She was having a difficult time equating the ruthless individual who had brutally hurt her friend with the man who was now looking at her with unpretentious kindness. "If you weren't behind it, how did you even get involved?"

"Let's just say that Deven and I have a history and when this showed up, I grabbed it before anyone else could. Not because I wanted the opportunity to hurt her but because I wanted the opportunity to save her."

Rhian looked closely at his face for the first time. His expression appeared unguarded and his gaze never wavered under her scrutiny. No matter how she tried, she couldn't comprehend how he could believe that nearly beating Deven to death was saving her. "But why?"

"That I won't answer."

"I don't understand any of this!"

"Ms. McKenna, I can appreciate that you're frustrated but this is how it must be. I wish I could explain it."

"I'm so sick of hearing that," Rhian said in exasperation. "She won't talk about it either! She's keeping everything so tightly bottled up inside that she's practically an emotional zombie most of the time."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said with compassion.

Rhian wanted to grab hold of the hatred she carried for this man. But there was something about his demeanor that was disarming. It was difficult for her to reconcile what he'd done with how he was acting at the moment. You don't owe him a damn thing, she reminded herself. In the end her frustrations and heartbreak won out and she began to speak.

"Physically, the damage you did is healing fine," she said with distaste. "The whole thing took a lot out of her and it's going to take some time for her to get her strength back." He eyes looked past him towards the house, and her whole demeanor changed. "Emotionally? Emotionally I don't know where she is because she won't let me close enough to find out. But I know she's hurting and has chosen to carry that burden by herself."

Pulling her gaze back to him, she allowed her anger at him to rise. "And her spirit∑her beautiful spirit is so damaged, I don't know if she'll ever recover!" Taking a step closer, she poked him in the chest as she said, "And I blame you for that!" The pressure of cold steel against the back of her head made her weak in the knees as she realized too late the foolishness of what she'd just done.

Glaring over Rhian's head, Manny addressed his driver. "What do you think you're going to do? Put that away right now. You don't actually believe she's going to kill me with her finger, do you?"

The driver quickly lowered the weapon and tucked it back into the shoulder holster beneath his jacket. "Sorry, sir," he answered sheepishly.

Turning slightly, Rhian glanced at the young man standing quietly on the other side of the car. Their eyes met briefly before he lowered his gaze. Salvatore. Tito's brother. Pieces of the puzzle started to fit together though there were still a lot of gaps to the overall picture. Lowering her voice, she said, "I know who you are. I mean I don't know who you are really, but I know that your name is Manny and Deven once worked for you."

He didn't answer but cocked his head slightly as he waited to see where this little revelation would lead. It was rather surprising to him that Deven would have spoken about him to anyone.

"That time in Deven's life has eaten away at her like a terminal disease," Rhian continued when he didn't respond. "It's held her locked in the past, plagued by guilt and remorse. It's kept her from believing that she's worthy of being cared about. I'd been working for months to make her believe that she's more than worthy, and then you come along and undo it all."

"What would you have me say?" he asked. "Deven was, no is, an extraordinary fighter. She's always wanted to fight. She's needed to fight. I gave her the opportunity to do that."

"By sponsoring illegal fights? You used her. You made her believe that you cared but all that you really cared about was her fighting skills." His gaze never faltered though his features softened perceptively. There was something about this man that Rhian just couldn't figure out. Anyone that could be so brutal to another human being should have been repulsive and mean, but he didn't seem to be either.

"That's not true," he said sadly.

"I can't even begin to comprehend how you could have done what you did to her no matter how much you hate her."

"There in lies my problem, Ms. McKenna. I don't hate her. If I did, I wouldn't have personally gotten involved. I'd have allowed someone else to go after her. They would have done it for the money and the pleasure. I don't need the money, and there was no pleasure in it." He leaned back against the sedan and eyed her speculatively. "You slapped her. Why?"

The shame of that moment kept her mute.

"Do you think her choice to give up and go with me that night was an act of selfishness?"

Rhian flinched slightly because there was a part of her that felt exactly that. That Deven's sacrifice hadn't been solely to protect them but had been tied to some extent to a belief that she needed to pay a debt.

"Life is choices, Ms. McKenna, and that's what I gave her. She could have fought knowing she was risking your life, or she could acquiesce and know you lived. I don't make idle threats or promises. She knows that. She is the same, is she not?"

"I was just a pawn for you to get to her," Rhian acknowledged. "I know that! I know that if we hadn't been with her, she wouldn't have given up so easily. I also know that she wouldn't be here anymore because she would have made sure she died fighting."

He inclined his head slightly. Hhhh"Your presence was regrettable. I'd hoped the photographs would have caused you to leave if only for a little while. I was running out of time and it's unfortunate that you and the children got caught up in it. For that, I do apologize."

Rhian wrapped her arms around her body, hoping to dispel some of the chill. "Despite everything you've said, I can't get past the fact that you left her for dead!"

"You're wrong. I left her alive so that she could choose. She had the option of taking the gun I gave her and ending her life, or she could fight to live."

"Gun? What gun? What are talking about?"

Manny shook his head. "She hasn't told you much, has she?"

"She won't talk about it at all." Rhian lifted her arms in irritation, and then let them drop back to her sides. "I told you! She won't let me in. She'd rather suffer alone than let me help her."

"Oh, selvaggia," he sighed. "The important thing is that her reason to live was stronger than her desire to escape the past. Don't discard for one moment your impact on her. Ms. McKenna, that you love her is obvious as is her love for you. If you can't see it, then accept on faith that choosing to live was done because of her love for you and the children."

"How can you possibly speak of love?" Rhian asked in disbelief.

"Love is a powerful force," he answered with a slight chuckle. "My wife has done to me what you've apparently done to Deven. Or perhaps I should say for us. You have more power to destroy her than I."

"I don't want to destroy her," Rhian answered forlornly. "I just want our life back. I want to know that we have a chance. I feel like I'm losing the one person I love, truly love, in all this world." The last of her anger faded beneath the pain of that admission, and she looked away to hide the dampness in her eyes. Gazing off over the treetops, a new perspective of the situation seemed to form in her mind and she latched onto it.

All I've been thinking about is that she won't let me in. All right. If she won't let me in, then I need to find a way to bring her out. I've been waiting for her to face things or ask for my help, and it's not working. So, maybe. Squaring her shoulders, Rhian faced the man with a new resolve. "How do I know you aren't just using me to get at her again?"

"You don't. But consider this. If I wanted her dead, she would be. If I truly wanted to get to her, I wouldn't need you. And if I didn't care, I certainly wouldn't be here. In all those cases, I would not be standing here conversing with you."

"You say you care so much, than help me save her," she challenged.

Curious, he asked, "What would you have me to do, Ms. McKenna?"

"Well, first off, if you're going to help me help Deven then call me Rhian."

"I must be out of my mind," he said under his breath. "All right, Rhian, what's on your mind?"

They spoke for another five minutes and then the landscaper glanced at her watch nervously. "She's going to come looking for me if I don't get home."

"Then you best go. I'd offer you a ride, but I don't think that would a good idea."

"This is insane, isn't it?" she asked apprehensively.

He laughed and it came out as a deep, almost jolly, sound. "I'm of the opinion that many things to do with Deven are insane. Present company excluded."

"Just talking to you is nuts. And I have to say that this could be the worst mistake of my life," she conceded.

"So why do it?" he asked.

"Because I love her and I can't stand watching her suffer."

"Reason enough," Manny said and opened the car door. "Take care, Rhian."

"Thanks," she replied and broke into an easy jog towards home.

To Be Continued in Chapter Twenty One

Return to the academy